Saturday, July 08, 2006

Two Dollars Short -- a poem (1997)

Two men of old age in a hospital lay:
Grumpy old Ralph and the grumpier Ray.
They'd both had long lives
They were both rich as kings
But Ralph felt deprived - like a bird without wings.

"I'm one dollar short of a million" (he said)
"And never a millionaire!
I've worked hard and I've saved...
Dear Lord, how I've slaved!
But that dollar, it just isn't there!"

If you think that's sad, I would have to agree,
But the other old geezer was much sadder than he.
Yes, Ray was well off
But he was worse off, as well
And here's what he said as he growled in his hell:

"I'm one dollar short of a billion" (he said)
"And never a billionaire!
I've worked hard and I've saved...
Oh God, how I've slaved!
But that dollar, it just isn't there!"

Then Ralph thought of a way to better their luck.
He sat up and exclaimed, "Ray! Lend me a buck!
I'll achieve my life's dream
And go out with a splash!
And put you in my Will - for two dollars cash!"

So Ray finally made his first billion
And Ralph died a millionaire
They'd worked hard and they'd saved
From their cribs to their graves...

It almost covered their hospital care.

-- Tim Lucas
10-19-97

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

For Love of a Seasick Sea Serpent

Cecil (who's, like, square -- dig?) meets Gogh Man Van Gogh, the "Wildman of Wildsville."


Since it was first released back in 2000, Image Entertainment "Special Edition" DVD of Bob Clampett's BEANY & CECIL has become a prized collector's item, with used copies nowadays selling on Amazon.com at a starting price of $122.00. It's an amazing disc, and one I recall with mixed agony and ecstasy because it was so jam-packed with data, it loaded up in some early DVD players like peanut butter. The memory of that wealth of material has become misleading with time, and it came to my attention only recently that the disc contained only a dozen actual B&C cartoons, along with a lot of very interesting and worthwhile supplements! Twelve cartoons is equal to only two of the original BEANY & CECIL VHS tapes that were released in the 1980s by RCA/Columbia Home Video, each of which collected the equivalent of two episodes -- three cartoons each, and occasional bumpers and other filler.

For the record, the twelve cartoons included in the Image Entertainment DVD (and the VHS volumes in which they were originally issued) were: “Beany Meets the Monstrous Monster” (VOL. 3), “So What and the Seven Whatnots” (VOL. 9), “Beany and the Boo Birds” (VOL. 4), “Super Cecil” (VOL. 1), “Wildman of Wildsville” (VOL. 1), “The Spots Off a Leopard” (VOL. 1), “Beanyland” (VOL. 11), “Cecil Meets the Singing Dinosor [sic]” (VOL. 1), “The Mad Isle of Madhattan” (VOL. 12), “Dirty Pool” (VOL. 10), “D.J. the D.J.” (VOL. 13), and “Snorky - There’s No Such Thing as a Sea Serpent” (VOL. 13).

Wot the heck! That means there's still a ton of BEANY & CECIL not yet available on DVD! The scorecard of available B&C toons on DVD amounts to this: VOL. 1 (three), VOL. 2 (none!), VOL. 3 (one), VOL. 4 (one), VOL. 5 (none!!), VOL. 6 (none!!!), VOL. 7 (none!!!!), VOL. 8 (none!!!!!), VOL. 9 (one), VOL. 10 (one), VOL. 11 (one), VOL. 12 (one), and VOL. 13 (two).

I don't have all the individual B&C VHS volumes, but fortunately, I have the majority (including the swell gift box edition of VOLUME 8, which came with a nifty Cecil hand-puppet), so I've started burning these onto DVD-R for myself. The B&C cartoons are deeply hard-wired into my brain, as they came along at just the right time in my childhood; they gave me a love of puns that almost certainly pre-dated my discovery of FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND, and I had all the toys -- the Beany copter hat (I must have lost all those propellers on the roof the first day I had it -- programmed obsolescence at its finest), the Cecil jack-in-a-box, the hand puppets, the B&C ukelele, the Cecil Soaky bottle, the comics, the talking dolls. Watching these cartoons again, I am astonished by their enduring vitality and by how they invigorate me. Thirty minutes of cartoons is usually my limit -- certain classics aside, cartoon features are almost always too long for my liking -- but I find that I can burn three volumes of B&C (that's 18 cartoons, plus bumpers) to disc in a sitting and still be ready for more. They are smart, hip ("So What and the Seven Whatnots" is not just a Disney gag, but a Miles Davis reference!), silly, and brilliantly designed -- and the secret, I think, is as simple as that.

In the course of my dubbing project, I discovered that my attic collection harbors three episodes of the 1988 BEANY & CECIL Saturday morning revival series masterminded by John Kricfalusi. These I hadn't watched since I'd recorded them 18 years ago (!), and the picture quality was enough to remind me of how the cards were stacked against this program. I watched the first episode on the local Cincinnati network affiliate. Said affiliate dumped the show after that single broadcast, so I had to seek out the next two episodes on the Dayton network affiliate, which was thankfully part of our cable package at the time. But after those second and third episodes, the new BEANY & CECIL disappeared from the Ohio airwaves and went over the rainbow in toto. I've read online that five episodes were aired, but the truth is: five cartoons, but only three episodes. An equal number of shows were produced -- "Cecil Meets Clambo," "The Courtship of Cecilia," and "The Golden Menu" -- that never received their public unveiling.

There are things about the Kricfalusi B&C that don't quite work -- notably its updating of Beany into a more expressive, pro-active character, which I think misses the joke of the poker-faced Beany and reeks of network "advice." I also wish that the show had been as punny as it was funny. But, over the course of the three shows I have, it was clearly coming more fully into its own. At the time, when the show was cancelled, I paid an anonymous call to Bob Clampett Productions and left a message on their machine bemoaning the cancellation and congratulating them on their effort. I didn't know who Kricfalusi was at the time, but it wasn't terribly long after the cancellation that I saw in TV GUIDE a color picture of two new cartoon characters called Ren and Stimpy who were about to be unveiled on Nickelodeon. I didn't make the connection to the new BEANY & CECIL, or even the new MIGHTY MOUSE which I also enjoyed, but I instinctively knew that I was going to like these guys; I clipped the picture, posted it on our home bulletin board, and became quite the REN & STIMPY buff for the first couple of years it was on the air.

One of the reasons I'm writing about BEANY & CECIL today is in the hope that somebody out there has the unaired Kricfalusi episodes, and might entertain the idea of a swap of some sort. I don't usually do this but, as I say, Beany & Cecil are characters that touch a special nerve in the old Watchdog. For those of you who never saw Kricfalusi's B&C revival, You Tube is making available the amusing episode called "The Bad Guy Flu." Fun and disease are just a click away.

It seems that The Watchdog is on a cartoon binge
He's making puns and having fun out on the lunatic fringe
He's watching BEANY & CECIL morning, night and noon
And now he's hoping you'll help him find
Those John Kricfalusi tooooooOOOOOOOOONS!

Sunday, July 02, 2006

2001: A High Definition Odyssey

Last night I happened to discover Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY playing on HDNet Movies. I don't know whether or not it was the film's world high-definition premiere, but it was new to the channel and I was so impressed by what I saw, I happily strapped myself in for the remainder of the broadcast.

I first saw 2001 the way it should be met, if at all possible -- in 70mm Super Panavision and six-track stereo sound -- circa 1975, at Cincinnati's Valley Theater, which I believe was the city's only 70mm venue at that time. The screen was immense and curved and the seats were very comfortable. I had several of my most memorable theatrical experiences there, but 2001 was supreme. In the years since, I've seen the film in many formats, from standard 35mm prints to commercial television broadcasts and the various tape and disc releases, but it was truly made for viewing in 70mm -- it loses something significant when viewed in any other format, even standard 35. That something boils down to presence.

I joined the HDNet Movies presentation just as Heywood Floyd (always the accepted spelling of William Sylvester's character, or is it "Haywood Floyd," as his name is captioned on a telescreen?) was making his trip to the moon. One of the unique qualities of HD viewing is an increased awareness of composition in depth, but I've never seen that sense better explored, or exploited, than in the special effects shots from this sequence. The famous shot of the spinning parallel wheels of the space station conveyed, for the first time in my living room, an appreciable sense of its size, its dimension, and its weightlessness -- as did the later cutaway shot to the asteroids hurtling past, and the whole episode of Poole's (Gary Lockwood's) unhappy encounter with a psychotically puppeteered space pod. At its best, I find that HD also communicates a sense of temperature, and here -- in the pinpoint precision of the starry backgrounds and the razor-sharp details of the lunar surface from afar -- 2001 HD permits a sometimes frightening impression of the cold emptiness of space. Consequently, the story is heightened by being told against this subtly terrifying background of the void.

The labels on the space food trays were readable. The anti-grav toilet directions were, to some extent, readable. The detail evident in the spaceship models was astonishing. I could almost smell the fresh vinyl of the seat cushions. I noticed that misspelling of Heywood Floyd's name, and wondered, for the first time, why Bowman (Keir Dullea) left certain of HAL's memory banks connected while disconnecting him. And I was continually amazed that a film that looked this immediate, this present, could have been first released in 1968. Many of the actors in this film are now dead, but the film itself has not aged a day in nearly 40 years, and its special effects have dated least of all. It is antiquated only by a level of quality control that was unique to the eye of Stanley Kubrick, which forever closed in 1999.

In short, I found the image quality of 2001 HD to be generally as rich and as plush as it had been in 70mm, and I also found there were unexpected advantages to having the screen downsized -- in my case, to a mere 53 inches. True, one can't "inhabit" the film to the extent one can on an immense screen, but new layers of appreciation await those who can take a step back, or outside, the experience while still "feeling" it courtesy of the exquisite transfer. In my case, I found it allowed me to focus, in a way I never have before, on the calm, cool, exacting logic that guides the film from one composition to the next. Everything unfolds at an unusually pensive pace that, I realized, is perfectly analogous to a chess master inhabiting a problem, viewing it from different angles, and gradually arriving at the decision of which of these solutions is best and then advancing there. Each shot in a scene holds for as long as it takes that decision to be made, and each step forward does appear to be predicated on a logic that is there to be read in the preceding image. Granted, I've seen the film many times, but never before have I been so conscious of how many shots contain the next shot, or the idea propelling the viewer toward the next shot, or propelling the story to its next plateau.

Whether or not viewers are consciously aware of this logic, I believe they feel it and come to rely on it -- and this is why the "Jupiter and Beyond" segment remains so controversial. Because 2001 has been so unyieldingly logical and deliberate up to this point, the introduction of action and information beyond our ken is galling for many viewers. Even before I could appreciate some of the finer subtleties of this segment, I could appreciate the beauty and mystery of it -- and now that I think I have a better idea of what it's all about, my knowledge still boils down to being more receptive to that same beauty and mystery. Clearly, Bowman (Keir Dullea) undergoes an experience involving alien terrain and presence that is beyond his comprehension -- an odyssey through space and time and color that leaves him emotionally shattered. Would the film be better had Kubrick staged this segment in a manner that popcorn munchers everywhere would have easily grasped, or was he right to take us along on the same ride into the Infinite as Bowman? I think the answer is obvious, and if 2001's arrival at narrative opacity kills it as a movie for some people, that same opacity offers it endless levels available to interpretation, discussion, debate and revisitation -- the stuff of great art.

For those of you with HD service, HDNet Movies will be presenting 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY several more times during the month, usually in showings followed by 2010: THE YEAR WE MAKE CONTACT (which, needless to say, also looks a good deal better than the transfer currently available on DVD). It's heartening to know that this exemplary transfer exists, and it proves beyond question that Stanley Kubrick was truly ahead of his time -- the HD filmmaker par excellence.